Tuesday, January 05, 2010

The Death Penalty

I had good intentions of doing Ruby Tuesday this week, but I stayed up too late, got up too late and am preoccupied waiting for the Schwan's truck this morning... and then there was an itme in the news this morning that caught my attention. The American Law Institute - the group which originally were the strong advocates who rationalized the use of the death penalty - have announced that they are dropping their support for it. They have not been brave enough to come right out and denounce it, but they have admitted that it isn't effective and won't support it any more. Yippee, I say! Hopefully this will be the start of something good like the revoking of capital punishment. I know, I'm a dreamer. Still, this offers hope. This announcement is apparently a big deal since they were sort of the literati of the "kill the bastards" set.

I've never understood the concept of the death penalty. I don't get what another killing fixes. I was so grateful that my sister's murder took place at a time when New York State didn't have the death penalty. Killing her killer - a 16-year-old boy - would have made it worse for me, not better. She would still have been dead and more blood would have been added to the horror of what happened. Another family - albeit a pretty broken one - would have mourned its dead. For what? Revenge, I think, is seldom as satisfying as people expect it to be. It doesn't undo the loss or take away the pain. One of the best movies ever on this subject is Dead Man Walking. It starred Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon and is based on fictionalized true life experiences of the nun played by Ms. Sarandon. Though it tilts to the anti-death penalty side of the equation, it is very fair to those who are pro death penalty, very respectful and cognizant of the pain of losing someone to violence.

I find the idea that the existence of a death penalty is any kind of deterrent to murder to be either delusional thinking or sophistry, but certainly absurdly illogical. Most murder is spontaneous and unplanned and I doubt anyone in the heat of such a moment is going to say ... "oops... I forgot this state has a death penalty, better not kill anyone." By the same token, those who plan their murders usually think they are too clever to be caught and again are not likely to be put off by the possibility of execution. Anyway... I ramble mindlessly here. Sorry.

I know today's news doesn't end the death penalty. The state of Texas seems to revel in killing people, even when they know they aren't guilty. Prosecutors are notoriously loathe to admit to their mistakes. An organization called The Innocence Project works tirelessly to clear those wrongly convicted of both death penalty and other crimes. Since 1973 close to 200 innocent people have been released from death row sentences based on DNA testing and other efforts.

I think it's murder when we as a society kill a guilty man, but what about the innocents we have unquestionably put to death over the years? Aren't we morally accountable for these deaths?

But anyway... I got delayed and side-tracked after I started this post, so I'm a bit fragmented and very late in the day posting it. Still the news this morning made me feel a bit better about the world. The death penalty may not be dead, but some of its strongest proponents are quietly sneaking out of the room and hoping nobody remembers they were there. That, at least is cause to smile.

Hope you all had a happy day. We had a bit more snow and more cold, cold weather. I guess we are not alone.

Some more winter pictures...



dudleysharp said...

Please review:

"The Death Penalty: More Protection for Innocents"

The 130 (now 139) death row "innocents" scam

"Deterrence and the Death Penalty: A Reply to Radelet and Lacock"

"Death Penalty, Deterrence & Murder Rates: Let's be clear"

23 recent deterrence studies finding for deterrence, Criminal Justice Legal Foundation,

A Death Penalty Red Herring: The Inanity and Hypocrisy of Perfection, Lester Jackson Ph.D.,

"The Innocent Executed: Deception & Death Penalty Opponents"

"Killing equals Killing: The Amoral Confusion of Death Penalty Opponents"

gabrielle said...

What a moving post! This is one of the many things I so admire about you, Raven. Your unflinching love and deep humanity. I was also encouraged by the news today.

Capital punishment is a system which is weighted against the socially dispossessed and an ineffective deterrent against crime. Each year, an untold number of innocent people are put to death in the name of justice. Aside from the inherent racial and economic disparities, the death penalty is often arbitrarily applied. For example:

Since capital punishment was reinstituted in Texas in 1976, one county, Harris, has been responsible for one-third of the state's cases leading to executions... For nearly this entire time Holmes has served as the county prosecutor, with strong support from voters... Holmes has sent more men to their death than any other D.A. in America. A survey in 1999 found that Dallas County had thirty-seven inmates on death row, while Harris had exactly 100 more, even though its crime rate is lower.

The U.S. is one of the last industrialized countries to retain this form of punishment. Ninety three percent of all known executions take place in five countries: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the USA. Once again, we are the outliers on the wrong side of human rights and justice.

A Hanging, by George Orwell, tells the story of an execution that he witnessed while he served as a policeman in Burma in the 1920s.

He wrote, "It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive..."

Killing a murderer does not bring the victim back to life. It achieves nothing but the death of yet another person.
Perhaps the most profound impact and heaviest burden of all lies with those of us who tacitly enforce this policy by proxy. I believe the act of taking a life fundamentally changes who we are.

Beautiful moon framed in branches.
It's a cold day here too.

Akelamalu said...

I would not be pro capital punishment if the sentence of Life Imprisonment actually meant Life. Here in England it seems to mean, 15 years at most. :(

Raven said...

Hi Dudley

Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts and post your articles. Sorry to say that I found them unconvincing and their logic very faulty. One seems to say that the death penalty is a deterrent because after they are caught prisoners don't want to be executed. Of course they don't but that doesn't mean it deters them from murder. In fact they have committed murder. Most of the other stuff is just statistics about opinions with nothing to back it.

Nobody will ever convince me that execution is a good thing. I'm morally and ethically opposed to it. Particularly when we can sentence people to life for murder.

Gabrielle - your wealth of knowledge always awes me. Thanks for the good statistical and factual information.

akelamalu - the boy who murdered my sister got 25-life. He comes up for parole in 3 years. I'm hoping he doesn't get released but I still think it's better not to execute people. There may be times in life - in war - when killing is unavoidable if you are going to save your own life, but other than that, when there is an alternative to taking life, I think that's where we should go.

Raven said...

One other thought... I think our prison system should be reformed so that there is drug treatment, education, counseling and ways for inmates to be productive so that if they are guilty of lesser crimes and go back out into the world the have skills which will keep them out of jail and if they are in for life, they can serve a useful purpose and help pay back the cost of detaining them. Better for everyone.

Raven said...

And while I'm at it... sorry... I keep thinking of other things to say. We should stop putting minor offenders in jail when treatment would do better and then we wouldn't be as inclined to release the truly violent for lack of space.

I'm done now. Thanks for your comments.

Carletta said...

I never understood a life for a life. I do think life imprisonment should mean exactly that and you made additional good points in the comments here.
Hope you're keeping warm there.

dudleysharp said...

you're welcome.

You misread. I never used murderers as the example for deterrence.

Please re read.

The argeuements are logical and have been tested.

All prospects of a negative consequence deter some. It is a trusim. All criminal sanctions deter some.

I used to be anti death penalty but switched based upon many issues, some of which dealing with the moral and philosophical basis for the social contract, justice and the right to sanction.

I found that death penalty arguements were either false or that the pro death penalty positions were stronger for certain subtopics.

Sherri said...

I am with you on this one Raven.

Death is very rarely the answer to any problem. I don't think it is morally right to kill any living thing. Life is sacred. All life.

I cannot being to imagine what it would be like to have a family member murdered. I am truly sorry for your loss. I commend you on your stand on the death penalty, even through your loss. I would hope that should I be in the same position, I would stand by my convictions. I too believe that the death penalty is based more on revenge than on justice.

*I want to say that I have enjoyed your blog. You are a wise woman.

dudleysharp said...


The system appears to agree with you that death is rarely the answer, but is the answer in some rare occassion.

The US executes about 0.1% of their murderers, partly because very few murders are death eligible.

Revenge is not a factor in the criminal justice system and the revenge motive is strictly removed from the process, that is why no one connected to the victim can be a fact finder in a case.

"The Death Penalty: Neither Hatred nor Revenge"

I would hope that you would be able to retain your moral compass, regardless of the circumstances.

These may be of some interest.

"Death Penalty Support: Secular and Religious Catholic Scholars"

Raven said...

Thanks for your kind words Coachwoman (cool name). It would have made it worse for me to have the boy who killed her executed. I don't want him on the street again. I think he's a broken soul and would probably kill again (especially after 25 years in our prison system).

Dudley... I'm going to respond before I go read your articles. I have to disagree. There is a heavy vengeance angle in the way the death penalty is handed out. I don't know about every state, but many allow pre-sentencing statements from victims families. We had that even with my sister's case. I think that's a bad policy. It implies that who you murder is as important as the act of murder, as though because my sister was wonderful and loved by her children and her family, her murder was somehow "worse" than that of a prostitute or someone with nobody to care about them. It was worse for me for sure, but I don't think that means that the crime was worse because she was a "good" person and somebody else was not socially acceptable.

In any case, I wouldn't agree with death sentences even if our justice system became perfect, but there are too many wrongly convicted people behind bars. There's increasing evidence that eye-witnesses (who are often the force behind convictions) are not reliable. Life sentences are a non-lethal alternative to execution. I think a life sentence is actually crueler in some ways.

Thanks for creating a discussion here. I think there's great value in sharing on these subjects. Anyone who hasn't seen Dead Man Walking, really should make it a point to do so.

Raven said...

Hi Dudley....

I went and read your links. Catholic scholars can say that executing people is a way of expiating guilt, but I personally think that's a way of rationalizing an UnChristian act. I don't agree with them on abortion either. But that's a conversation for another day.

I think there is a component of revenge in the death penalty no matter how you rationalize it, because there is a viable (no pun intended) alternative in giving a life sentence.

I need to say that I don't think wanting revenge is necessarily an evil thing. It's a normal impulse, especially in the face of violence. I'm vengeful enough to want the 16-year old who killed my sister to spend his whole life in jail and not just 25 years of it. I'm just not a revenge by killing kind of person. My grief doesn't take me that way, but I respect that some people think it will ease their pain or that an eye for an eye is God's way. I simply disagree. I don't think people are bad for wanting the death penalty. I just think it's wrong. Life imprisonment for the worst protects society just as well as execution... and Catholic expiation theory aside - I think it is more "Christian."

Argent said...

I think that we have to ask what any punishment is meant to achieve. Killing someone as a punishment achieves the aim of removing them from society so they may never re-offend. But so would life (real life) imprisonment. There is no real evidence that the deatrh penalty is any more effective as a deterrant than imprisonment. The death penalty is a one-way ticket and cannnot be undone when mistakes are made. It's easy to say that we are willing to take that risk - that an innocent might die - to keep such an effective punishment, but what if it was your family member that was being put to death unfairly? Also, with the death penalty, there is no possibility of reform or repentance. Surely, we'd prefer to have a murderer changed into a useful, productive member of society than into a lump of dead meat?
Lastly, ending someone's life is a kind of godlike act - and you need godlike understanding to be sure that it is a just course of action.
Who among us can claim that?

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Larah said...

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